Members of the Hutchinson Community College Blue Dragons football team had just arrived on campus in July when the police chief paid them a visit.
If the athletes were expecting a law-and-order lecture, they received something altogether different. Jeff Hooper welcomed them to Hutchinson. He told players that, in his department, good police work is measured not by arrests but by positive encounters between officers and those they have the privilege to serve.
Hooper acknowledged that some of the athletes sitting before him, more than half of whom were Black, might not have a positive impression of the police. Some grew up in tough urban neighborhoods, others in small towns where people of color are closely watched and often harassed.
“Give us a chance,” Hooper said. “Allow us to talk to you and build relationships and connect with you on a one-to-one basis.”
Hooper recalls some of the athletes were clearly skeptical, others suspicious. “Police are evil,” one player said.
Later, Hooper said he was not offended by the generalization. “One of the things I talk to my officers about is that our uniform carries with it baggage,” he says. “And that baggage is made up of everything you’ve ever read, seen or heard about law enforcement.”
The chief asked the players to keep an open mind.
“I’ve never been Black, and I’ve never been from the inner city,” he said, recalling the conversation later. “But you’ve never been a police officer and been on a call all by yourself at night where you get a report that an armed subject broke into a house and you have to enter that house on your own not knowing whether you’re going to go home to your family at the end of your shift.”
The chief’s welcome was a marked departure from the reception that athletes and other students of color at HutchCC, as the school is called, once experienced. Before Hooper’s arrival in 2018, Black students complained of routinely being stopped and questioned by police when they were out and about in Hutchinson, a city where nearly 80% of the population is white.
“In the past, it happened quite a lot,” says Darrell Pope, past president of the Hutchinson chapter of the NAACP. “We’re talking about being stopped while driving and walking. They’d be out somewhere, and the police would come and hassle them. Or they’d be in Walmart and someone would call the police.”
Hooper’s outreach to students, in collaboration with college leaders, could point a way toward better relationships in other Kansas cities where sports and other opportunities bring diverse groups of community college students to campuses and communities where the population is majority white.
The challenges of recruiting
Sports are huge at Kansas community colleges and have been for decades. Athletes arrive in rural communities from around the nation and overseas. Some just want another year or two to be part of teams and play the sports they love. Others hope a good season at a junior college will lead to an offer to compete at a four-year university.
The Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference (KJCCC) is one of the most robust chapters in the National Junior College Athletic Association, and Kansas teams routinely compete for national championships in multiple sports.
“For a lot of people, athletics is the lens they see the college through,” says Carter File, president of Hutchinson Community College.
File counts it as a plus that HutchCC’s sports programs draw students from all over. “One of the things we pride ourselves on is that we do introduce diversity into the community,” he says.
“We want to create the opportunity for students to interact with other students of different backgrounds.”
The far-flung range of hometowns on Kansas community college sports rosters does raise some eyebrows.
Kansas Rep. Kristey Williams, a Republican from Augusta, has asked the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit for a report on whether money from state and local taxpayers is used to subsidize athletes from other states or nations. The audit is ongoing.
Beyond the fiscal concerns, some people question why more roster spots aren’t given to Kansas athletes.
Carl Heinrich, commissioner for the KJCCC, says the conference limits teams to 55 out-of-state football players on 85-player rosters. Other sports have no caps on out-of-state athletes.
Talented Kansas athletes often have scholarship offers from four-year schools, Heinrich says. To be competitive, coaches have to look elsewhere.
“It’s a challenge for coaches to get their rosters filled every year,” he says.
International athletes often receive aid from their home countries to attend college in the U.S. and play sports, which makes their presence on campus lucrative for the colleges.
Some community colleges offer scholarships to out-of-state and Kansas athletes that can come from fundraising, fees or other methods the schools come up with, Heinrich says. Scholarships are limited to tuition, fees and books, and sometimes room and board, depending on whether a college plays at the Division II or Division I level.
A measure of trouble
At a time when Kansas community colleges struggle with declining enrollments, sports programs guarantee a statewide presence of about 3,000 athletes on campuses, in classrooms and in residence halls.
But sports have also brought a measure of trouble to a few schools.
Twice in the last four years, football players died of heat stroke during practices. Fort Scott Community College, in southeast Kansas, shut down its football program after Tirrell Williams died there. The other death, of Braeden Bradforth, was at Garden City Community College in western Kansas.
Apart from the deaths, lawsuits filed in 2020 and early this year alleged that Black student athletes at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas were subjected to “rampant racial harassment and discrimination.”
The 2020 lawsuit, which the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas filed on behalf of four athletes, alleged that members of the Highland Police Department, acting as security officers for the college, routinely searched vehicles and dorm rooms of Black student athletes. Police officers used their squad cars to trail Black students while they walked on and off campus, the suit also alleged, and disciplined Black students for offenses more than white students.
Ultimately, the parties reached a settlement. The college agreed to pay students and their lawyers $90,000. Security officers and housing personnel were ordered to take anti-discrimination training.
Still pending is another lawsuit, brought by three former Highland Community College coaches. The coaches contend the college fired them without cause and smeared their reputations because they protested the college’s treatment of Black players.
It also alleges that the school’s now former athletic director told the coaches to “recruit more players who the culture of our community can relate to.” The population of Doniphan County, where Highland is located, is 92% white. Its Black population is about 3%.
In an email, Highland President Deborah Fox said the college “intends to vigorously defend itself” against what she called “baseless allegations” by the coaches.
“Our communities that house the main campus (Highland) and other HCC locations have been extremely positive when interacting with our students,” she said, and added that the people in the community “understand how important all students are to our college and northeast Kansas communities.”
An intentional approach in Hutchinson
In Hutchinson, which also has a Black population of about 3%, leaders say that cultivating positive relationships for both minority students and residents requires an intentional approach.
The college opens its campus to civil rights events such as Hutchinson’s Emancipation Celebration’s gospel fest. And the spring semester begins earlier at HutchCC than many other colleges so that students can engage in local activities for Martin Luther King Jr. Day if they choose, File says.
Hutchinson’s faith community also reaches out to students. Soon after they arrived for training, the HutchCC football team was invited to a meal at one of the Black churches. Black players are shown the way to barber shops and other places where they can feel comfortable.
Pope, the NAACP leader, credits Hooper with creating a positive atmosphere in town. “He’s got a different philosophy,” he says.
Hooper says his philosophy begins and ends with relationships. In Hutchinson, he says, “there aren’t many people who don’t know me or haven’t heard me talk.”
But the community college constantly brings new faces into the community. “So every year we have to try to meet with those new students and try to break through those barriers,” Hooper says.
After the chief’s meeting with the football team, the athlete who had blurted out that “police are evil” trailed behind his teammates to talk to Hooper as he walked out to his patrol car.
“Hey chief,” the athlete asked, “can I ride in your police car?”
“Absolutely,” Hooper said. “Hop in.”
“I drove him back to the dorm,” Hooper says. “A lot of the kids were getting back by that time. He got out and said, ‘Yeah, I got a ride from the chief!’”
Hooper doesn’t know if the encounter will change the athlete’s perception of law enforcement.
“I do know that he’s seen my heart,” he says, “and when I see him on campus, we can have a conversation. He’s going to walk up to me or I’m going to walk up to him. That’s the only way I know how to change the world, is one relationship relationship at a time.”
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.